To-day he had taken advantage of the luncheon interval to bring her some flowers, with a note to say that he could not come that evening. Letting himself in with his latchkey, he had carefully put those Japanese azaleas in the bowl “Famille Rose,” taking water from her bedroom. Then he had sat down on the divan with his head in his hands.
Though he had rolled so much about the world, he had never had much to do with women. And there was nothing in him of the Frenchman, who takes what life puts in his way as so much enjoyment on the credit side, and accepts the ends of such affairs as they naturally and rather rapidly arrive. It had been a pleasure, and was no longer a pleasure; but this apparently did not dissolve it, or absolve him. He felt himself bound by an obscure but deep instinct to go on pretending that he was not tired of her, so long as she was not tired of him. And he sat there trying to remember any sign, however small, of such a consummation, quite without success. On the contrary, he had even the wretched feeling that if only he had loved her, she would have been much more likely to have tired of him by now. For her he was still the unconquered, in spite of his loyal endeavour to seem conquered. He had made a fatal mistake, that evening after the concert at Queen’s Hall, to let himself go, on a mixed tide of desire and pity!
His folly came to him with increased poignancy after he had parted from Noel. How could he have been such a base fool, as to have committed himself to Leila on an evening when he had actually been in the company of that child? Was it the vague, unseizable likeness between them which had pushed him over the edge? ‘I’ve been an ass,’ he thought; ’a horrible ass.’ I would always have given every hour I’ve ever spent with Leila, for one real smile from that girl.’
This sudden sight of Noel after months during which he had tried loyally to forget her existence, and not succeeded at all, made him realise as he never had yet that he was in love with her; so very much in love with her that the thought of Leila was become nauseating. And yet the instincts of a gentleman seemed to forbid him to betray that secret to either of them. It was an accursed coil! He hailed a cab, for he was late; and all the way back to the War Office he continued to see the girl’s figure and her face with its short hair. And a fearful temptation rose within him. Was it not she who was now the real object for chivalry and pity? Had he not the right to consecrate himself to championship of one in such a deplorable position? Leila had lived her life; but this child’s life—pretty well wrecked—was all before her. And then he grinned from sheer disgust. For he knew that this was Jesuitry. Not chivalry was moving him, but love! Love! Love of the unattainable! And with a heavy heart, indeed, he entered the great building, where, in a small room, companioned by the telephone, and surrounded by sheets of paper covered with figures, he passed his days. The war made everything seem dreary, hopeless. No wonder he had caught at any distraction which came along—caught at it, till it had caught him!